In contrast to the grandness of Rosary Square and the various basilicas, the grotto at Massabielle where St Bernadette’s visions took place is very simple and stark. The recess of the grotto itself is undecorated, although a plain stone altar and lectern have been placed there so that Mass can be said. Above the main recess is the niche where the apparitions took place and Fabisch’s statue now stands. A large stand of candles next to the altar is kept burning during the season.
The spring Bernadette is said to have dug can be seen at the rear of the grotto, shielded by a glass cover. Pilgrims can process through the grotto and it is traditional to touch the rocks directly under the statue; indeed so many people have done this that the stones have become polished. Also at the rear of the grotto is a metal box into which written prayers or petitions may be deposited; they are collected daily and burnt.
Rows of benches allow visitors to sit and pray or contemplate. Pilgrims are asked to remain silent while in the vicinity to create an atmosphere of devotion. One of the spots where Bernadette prayed to the Virgin is marked by a special paving slab.
Some of the rock walls around the grotto bear clear signs of deliberate alteration, presumably to improve access for pilgrims. It is no longer clear what the original configuration of the grotto was.
At least one contemporary account describes a series of chambers behind the statue’s niche, which can only be reached by climbing “like a lizard” through clefts in the rocks.
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